Plan 9: David Donaldson, Janet Roddick, Steve Roche
Tell us about The Bewilderness. How and why did this album come to be?
The Bewilderness was a project we devised after the first lockdown in 2020, while we were waiting for our soundtrack work to pick up. We had recently moved into a new studio, which has an old chapel connected to it. The chapel has fantastic acoustics, so we came up with the idea of devising, rehearsing and recording a body of work specifically for that space. It is a very live room and well suited to strings. We formed an altered string quartet with a couple of individualistic players who had been on our wishlist, Ruby Solly on cello and Tristan Carter on violin. The quartet was filled out with David on double bass and Steve on violin. We also wanted to try pairing Janet’s vocals with another musician and vocalist that we’ve long admired, Jonny Marks. Jonny studied throat singing in Mongolia for several years.
We wrote The Bewilderness over a few months, and thanks to a Creative NZ grant were able to employ the other musicians to workshop and rehearse, giving us the opportunity to keep developing the material. We wanted to be able to record the music as a live performance. That’s what the classical world usually does of course, but we come from a place of contemporary music, recording layers and overdubs and building up the sound that way. It was recorded over 2 days at the end of October last year, so pretty much a year ago.
Plan 9 has been a composing partnership for over 25 years and a lot of the music we make is commissioned, requiring us to meet someone else’s brief. The Bewilderness was an opportunity to explore areas well out of our usual comfort zone, so we could try a different approach to composition.
Your film work doesn’t usually involve lyrics. How did you approach writing the text for this album?
Although Plan 9 is primarily known for instrumental work, we’ve always been drawn to songwriting since working together in the Six Volts, and later The Brainchilds. Both bands released two albums. Steve and David have also released four albums of songs under the name Thrashing Marlin.
The subject matter of The Bewilderness, both instrumentally and lyrically, was influenced by the ongoing sense of disconnection and uncertainty created by the pandemic and so each track was informed in some way by this.
The opening piece, The Rush, with its hectic intensity is a representation of where the world was up to just prior to Covid-19. During the first lockdown a huge swell hit the Wellington south coast, causing property damage and even some injuries. The Big Sea references this storm, while in The List it is the empty supermarket shelves, and sense of not knowing what is coming next. Some of the other pieces were influenced by the silence and sense of reflection that lockdown offered. Rain is one of those pieces.
How did you incorporate the throat singing of Jonny Marks and Taonga Pūoro of Ruby Solly?
David: I have spent many years exploring harmonics, rhythmically bowed on my double bass. We wrote a piece that begins with a duet between bass harmonics and Jonny’s throat singing, meshing the different harmonic layers in the 9 minute long meditation that is Rain.
Incorporating Ruby’s Taonga Puoro just developed naturally through the rehearsal process. The atmospheric piece called Garden Party was written with plenty of space and gave an opportunity to hear the subtleties of those beautiful instruments.
L to R: Jonny Marks, Tristan Carter, Steve Roche, Ruby Solly, David Donaldson and Janet Roddick
You’re the first ever collective to be nominated for the SOUNZ Contemporary Award.
Our individual backgrounds and skills are quite different, which is why we’ve been able to collaborate so successfully.
Janet: I studied classical singing at Otago University and then came to Wellington and took up improvisation and free jazz and playing in The Six Volts. I’ve done a lot of music theatre and really love Kurt Weill and Sondheim and I’ve been lucky enough to be in a good few stage productions. I’ve been in some wonderful new works commissioned by NZ International Festival of the Arts like Ricordi and The Trial of The Cannibal Dog. We all loved the experience of performing The Songs of Kurt Weill at most of the arts festivals around the country. And I did a spell as an announcer on Concert FM. So being able to do a lot of different things has been invaluable.
David: I’m a self-taught musician, who grew up playing double bass in bands as a performing musician. I was a member of The Primitive Art Group, a five-piece Wellington based group from the early to mid ‘80s that explored group improvisation. The Primitive Art Group released two albums and started the Braille Records Collective, which has released 23 albums to date.
Steve: I’m another self-taught musician, who played trumpet in a few Wellington bands including some of the Braille collective outfits before joining the others in The Six Volts.
Between 1986 and 1991 The Six Volts toured extensively, including playing in England and performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. They recorded two albums of their own as well as being invited to be the backing band for Don McGlashan and Harry Sinclair’s first Front Lawn album. The Six Volts also wrote and performed in numerous theatre and dance shows.
The three of us continued working together after the Six Volts finished and set up Plan 9 as we moved away from live performance and more into composing and soundtrack work. We’ve always seen music as a group activity and like the collective spirit of music making — the whole being bigger than the parts.
We’ve carried this approach into our soundtrack work. We each have quite different skills which, luckily, complement each other. The way we compose wouldn’t work for everyone, but it works for us, so we don’t question it too much. It relies on trusting each other and not being too precious with our individual ideas. After working together for over 30 years we have developed a deep musical connection.
Each project or film we take on comes with its own set of complications. Does it require orchestral instruments? Is it more guitar based, or electronic? We often start the composition process working individually but as it develops it becomes more and more a group activity as we combine and refine the individual musical themes and strands.
What has Plan 9’s experience of the pandemic been like? Besides releasing your first album, how have you had to change the way you do things?
The pandemic and initial lockdown did result in us having work postponed and even cancelled. Working as composers is what we do whether it’s paid work or not, so we continued writing and recording music. The Bewilderness was one such project.
As soundtrack composers we do have downtime. In 2014 we started another side project called MODWHEEL. We’ve always been lucky enough to have had large studio spaces and over our long history together have built up a considerable collection of instruments. So, we started recording and sampling these instruments and releasing them as Virtual Instruments and Sample Libraries for use in the Kontakt platform. It’s a bit like the collection of musical instruments in Garageband but a pro version. In November we will be releasing our 17th library, called Repercussions, a sample library toolkit of tuned, untuned and unusual percussion.
What plans do you have for the future? Are there any exciting projects in the pipeline – perhaps another album?
We’re not sure what the future holds for Plan 9, as at this moment there are few film projects shooting. A documentary we had planned to start has been delayed until next year, as has some tv work. By now we are used to the relative uncertainty of a composer’s life and we will continue making music together regardless.
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